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  • Plus que ReineThe Napoleonic Revival in Belle Epoque Theatre and Fashion
  • Michele Majer (bio)

In 1899, the centenary of the coup d'état that created the Consulate and brought him closer to the imperial throne, Napoleon Bonaparte was, as one writer put it, "à la mode."1 Although the cult of Napoleon was established while the emperor was still alive and it remained strong throughout the nineteenth century, as Venita Datta discusses in Heroes and Legends of Fin-de-Siècle France: Gender, Politics, and National Identity, it enjoyed renewed interest between 1890 and 1914, a period during which the First Empire "became the subject of serious academic history."2 Datta also notes that there was, from the beginning, an "elasticity" to the Napoleonic legend that made it appealing to factions on both the political left and the right, assuring its longevity.3

Especially relevant to this essay are Datta's observations that "the most significant arena for the revival of the Napoleonic cult was in literature, in particular, the theatre, and in the fine arts," and that much of the literature on Napoleon published during the Belle Époque emphasized the private man and his personal relationships, rather than the public warrior and his military exploits.4 For Frédéric Masson, Napoleon's biographer and probably the most prolific writer on Napoleon during this period, penetrating beyond the god-like hero in order to understand "his soul, his heart, his mind," and his passions as a son, lover, husband, and father, was a major aim of his work.5 As Datta argues, "The historical scenes represented in the theater constituted popular, democratic history that bridged the distance between past and present by accentuating the personal attributes of public figures."6 It is important to note here that the Belle Époque cult of Napoleon on the stage was only one manifestation [End Page 11] of a widespread commercialism that speaks to the popular consumption of history in French society at the time.

Plays with Napoleonic themes—many of which explored the human side of this iconic figure—abounded on the Parisian stage. In 1893 alone, there were Victorien Sardou's Madame Sans-Gêne, Alphonse Lemonnier's Madame la Maréchale, Leopold Martin Laya's Napoléon, and Charles Grandmougin's L'Empereur; in 1899, Émile Bergerat's Plus que Reine and Émile Moreau's Madame de Lavalette; and in 1900, Edmond Rostand's L'Aiglon starring Sarah Bernhardt and a reprisal of Madame Sans-Gêne.7

Recreating period costumes was obviously an important aspect of these productions that treated such a significant era of French history. It was particularly true of Plus que Reine by the successful writer Émile Bergerat, a play in which Napoleon and Josephine were the main characters and which highlighted the coronation of 1804.8 This essay focuses on the First Empire costumes that were integral to Plus que Reine's narrative and were a compelling visual component for the ways in which they evoked these two famous historical figures, specifically in relation to well-known paintings of the Napoleonic period by Jacques-Louis David and Pierre-Paul Prud'hon. I also examine the longstanding influence of theatrical dress on women's fashion through the costumes worn by Jane Hading as Empress Josephine and the incipient Empire-revival vogue that was evident at the turn of the twentieth century. Throughout, I relate the play to the rise in study of French history that occurred over the course of the nineteenth century, a period during which theatrical, fashionable, and fancy dress reflected and participated in that history. Publications, plays, tableaux vivants, fancy dress balls, and fashion all contributed to the French collective historical imagination and to asserting a French national identity.9

Plus que Reine premiered at the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin on March 28, 1899, the same year in which Masson published his biography, Joséphine, Impératrice et Reine. Comments by reviewers of the play such as "We are in the midst of the Napoleonic legend"10 and "Still him"11 underscored the popularity of all things related to the emperor. In an interview with Le Figaro published on...


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